Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Elizabeth Bishop, On Blogs

One of the questions I’ve been trying to answer with this blog is why so many people (myself included) feel compelled to keep blogs at all—especially ones that delve deeply into people's personal lives (see 12/2/07). It occurred to me that the answer may lie in an Elizabeth Bishop essay entitled “The U.S.A. School of Writing” that came out long before the advent of online eavesdropping. Though Bishop was better known for her poetry, her prose—especially this essay—is well worth the read.

“The U.S.A. School of Writing” opens as Bishop, a recent Vassar graduate, has just received a job at the eponymous correspondence school in New York, which is nothing more than a mail-fraud scheme to swindle aspiring authors. Bishop’s task is to respond to students’ assignments, though many of them are barely literate individuals who dream of glorious writing careers after seeing the school’s flashy advertisements in farming magazines. Bishop responds to her students under the name of her predecessor Mr. Margolies; and after reading their humble letters and awkward, confessional stories, she begins to understand what drives them to writing:

Henry James once said that he who would aspire to be a writer must inscribe on his banner the one word “Loneliness.” In the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society, but to get into it. Their problem was that on their banners “Loneliness” had been inscribed despite them, and so they aspired to be writers. Without exception the letters I received were from people suffering from terrible loneliness in all its better-known forms, and some I had never even dreamed of. Writing, especially writing to Mr. Margolies, was a way of being less alone. To be printed, and to be “famous,” would be an instant shortcut to identity, and an escape from solitude, because then other people would know one as admirers, friends, lovers, suitors, etc. (44)

James suggests that writers must separate themselves from the world they wish to portray in their work in order to be successful. Bishop’s students, however—many of whom work as sailors or ranch hands far from any sort of social activity—use writing as a way to gain entrance to a greater community where people will know their names and experiences. They choose writing over more direct ways of alleviating their loneliness because they have no close friends to relate to or confide in. This is not to say that all blog writers are friendless sheepherders, but they too want someone to share in their experiences, their successes, and their failures. It is in our very nature to reach out for human contact in this big world of ours; and now we can do so simply by updating our Facebook statuses.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Girl from Smith

Anna was a Smith graduate who had double-majored in Psychology and Economics before moving to Boston and deciding to become a nurse instead. She worked part time in the Sleep Research Lab and, on the day of our one conversation, was being paid to sit and talk with me during the second five hours of my Constant Routine. We discussed Northampton and the surrounding area schools; she recounted the time she had seen Kurt Vonnegut sit on a bench marked WET PAINT; and I couldn’t resist making the usual Smith jokes when I found out she was straight. Recalling Cameron’s experience at Mt. Holyoke, I asked Anna if she had liked her school.

“It was refreshing not to be around immature guys all the time,” she said after some thought. “I found the all-female environment to be much more sophisticated.”

Feeling compelled to defend my gender; I replied that not all guys behaved immaturely, and at Bennington there had been little distinction of any kind between the sexes.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Men behave ridiculously a good deal of the time—it’s the excess of testosterone. For instance, I used to live below these two frat guys from Bowdoin—total rich kids. Their parents had bought them a TV that took up an entire wall and other things no twenty-three year-old could afford. Every night they would get hammered and make so much noise that we could barely sleep.”

I suddenly felt glad Bowdoin had rejected me. “But that’s not necessarily a guy thing,” I argued, “anyone could be obnoxious and spoiled like that.”

“Consider this then,” Anna said, on the defensive now. “One day we came home to find their brand-new car had been horrendously smashed. I had forgotten about it until a week later, when my roommate overheard one of them at a bar bragging about how they and a bunch of other guys had gotten piss-drunk, stripped naked in the middle of winter, and spun donuts in an icy parking lot. Of course, they crashed into a streetlight and totaled the car.”

“But I’m a guy, and I would never do anything that stupid. I also never get naked around other men. There are any number of guys who would have your same reaction at hearing that. Gender has nothing to do with it; some individuals are just prone to reckless, moronic, childish behavior.”

“But you couldn’t picture a girl doing anything that dangerous or homoerotic, could you? Don’t you think there’s something in the male makeup that enables such stupidity?”

I wasn’t sure.

“Here’s another one,” she continued. “My brother and some friends took a trip to Japan, and one night they all got ridiculously drunk off sake and Asian beer. He said they drank all night and ended up wandering around the city daring each other to do stupid things.” She lowered her voice, as if the Techs outside might be listening. “It reached a peak when one of them dared another to stick a bottle of Tabasco sauce up his ass, and then do a headstand! And the guy did it!”

I was so taken aback by the idea of someone willingly sticking such a thing up their ass and not even getting paid for it that I was speechless. Anna sat back, triumphant; and I finally admitted that yes, maybe there was something that drove certain individual guys—I was very clear on this—to commit moronic acts that girls would never dream of.

But of course—it occurred to me later—girls can be crazy in a very different, non-homoerotic drunken-antics way, as we all know. I could have brought up any number of malicious examples from high school or college to prove that point. But such individual actions should never coerce us into stereotyping people of either gender—it leads to far too many misunderstandings.

Anna and I laid the matter to rest and moved on to relationships instead.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Desensitization of Circadian Responses to Light

A lot of people have asked me about the sleep study; perhaps because they wanted to know whether it was an experience comparable to Turkish imprisonment or a genuinely good way to make some money. That I emerged from the study coherently sane seemed to reassure them.

I spent fourteen days sequestered within Suite 5 of the 9B Circadian Rhythm Research Lab as part of a series of ongoing research studies through Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The room was larger than I expected—maybe twenty feet by twenty feet—and included a dresser, an electric hospital bed, a large desk, a scale, two video cameras, two testing computers, a closet, a bathroom with the usual furnishings, and a massive tangle of cords and outlets that sprang from the wall behind the bed. To secure the sense of timelessness, the suite had no windows, and clocks were prohibited. The ceiling was composed entirely of florescent lights that maintained the necessary brightness or dimness levels for the study, and the exit door opened out to a foyer that led back into the research lab.

Aside from the amount of light in the room—which alternated between several days of bright and several of dim—every wake period (to use 9B terminology) was exactly the same. My wake period began when the lights went on and I took a test asking me to rate my alertness level and then add as many two-digit numbers as I could within a certain time (not a fun way to start the day). This test was repeated at slightly longer intervals until I was finally allowed out of bed, my IV and head electrodes unplugged from the wall, and given breakfast. All of my meals were large, repetitious, and came labeled with bright-green stickers labeled MUST FINISH, which I would tear off. After breakfast, a Tech used acetone to remove the electrodes glued to my scalp and wrapped my IV bandage in rubber so I could shower and enjoy some blissful privacy. The real testing—a monotonous series of computer programs that scaled my cognitive abilities, mood, and reaction time—began after lunch, and consumed much of my wake period. For a challenge, I attempted to achieve my own best time for the Visual Alertness Test (normal human reaction time is between 250-350 milliseconds):

Visual Alertness Test High Scores

                             1.              139              IAN
                             2.              142              IAN
                             3.              145              IMR
                             4.              155              IAN
                             5.              157              IMR
                             6.              160              IAN
                             7.              162              IAN
                             8.              163              IAN
                             9.              163              SEX
                             10.            165               IAN

The testing alarm rang out at frustratingly frequent intervals, dividing the time between lunch and dinner into smaller periods that I used to write letters, keep up with my journal, read, watch movies on the bright days (9B offered an above-average selection of DVDs and videos, many of which had been stolen. Thankfully, Take the Money and Run and Casablanca had not), solve Sodokus, or listen to music. Every wake period, my project leader Melanie would also pay me a visit to deliver e-mails from friends, make sure that I was still in good spirits, and talk about Blade Runner or Degrassi (Melanie grew up watching the original series with German subtitles, which made for a good bonding experience). Then came dinner, and time for a Tech to attach electrodes to my scalp and face so they could record my eye movements and brain activity while I slept. More testing and a snack preceded bedtime, when another Tech would shut off the computers and plug my electrodes into the wall before the lights went out.

The only change came my two Constant Routines when I had to remain awake in bed hooked up to electrodes for a period not to exceed forty hours. Computer testing continued, and my meals were replaced by frequent snacks consisting of one quarter of a sandwich, some apple juice, and water. A Tech stayed in the room with me, and time passed quickly as long as we could keep a conversation going. (I got to know many of the Techs during Constant Routines, and shared deep, meaningful insights with people I will probably never see again.) The experience turned hellish during Light Exposure, when the lights shone at full brightness and I was forced to stare at a sinister looking eyeball taped to the wall for an egregiously long period of time. More conversation and a copy of Angela’s Ashes on tape (abridged, but read by the author) helped keep me awake when drowsiness set in, though by the end I was nodding off during tests, barely able to keep my eyes open. Just when I couldn’t take it anymore, the room plunged into a cool dimness as refreshing as an air-conditioned basement on a hot day. The remaining time was easier, and I read or played Othello with the Techs until the moment finally came for sleep.

Aside from the Light Exposure, the entire study was pleasantly mellow, and not the isolated confinement colored with introverted activities that I had anticipated. The Techs drifted in and out of the room constantly and provided good company every wake period, for they seemed to appreciate my friendliness as relief from their own monotonous routines. All of them were in my age group; some were Northeastern undergrads working co-ops (like an FWT, but for a whole semester), some were former co-ops working part-time, some were in graduate school, some were studying abroad from Britain, and others just needed money. They were interested in lab research; nursing; becoming MDs; never becoming MDs; working with animals; going to law school; producing music; and in one case, completing a Ph.D. in Circadian Rhythm Research. 9B seemed a place where young people came to work at the crossroads of their lives.

Would I go back for another study, perhaps to try thirty-eight days, or sixty? Possibly. There were low points, sure (Light Exposure, the first two wake periods adjusting to a new routine, the occasional pang of awful loneliness, and of course the, er, temperature sensor), but these did not bother me most days. Instead, I wallowed in a state of scientifically controlled timelessness where the outside world had no meaning; far away from barking dogs, student loans, Facebook updates, car repairs, snowy driveways, and ex-girlfriends—dreaming of all the money I was making. It was valuable time away; to relax, think, and try something new, but seeing the daylight again was as refreshing as waking up after a good night’s sleep.